Bilingual art exhibit highlights a wild connection to Puerto Rico

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A report by Billy Arnold for the Jackson Hole  (Wyoming) News and Guide.

Somos de aqui, como el coqui.

In English that Puerto Rican saying may not have the same singsong ring it does in its native tongue, Spanish, but the translation speaks for itself: “We are from here, like the coqui.”

The coqui is a frog.

“It’s a symbol for Puerto Rico — cultural, historical, ecological, everything,” Lina Collado Garcia said.

Collado Garcia, who is Puerto Rican, is the curator for Wyoming’s first fully bilingual art exhibit, “Somos de Aqui: The Enduring Wildlife of Puerto Rico,” which will open Sunday at the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

The exhibit’s name, she explained, is twofold. She wanted to honor the coqui’s role as a national symbol and to draw attention to the fact that the frog, like many other species on the Puerto Rican archipelago, is enduring.

Not thriving, not surviving — enduring.

“People assume that, since the common coqui is everywhere, everything is fine,” she said, “but there are 17 different species of coquis in Puerto Rico, and three are already extinct.”

In 2017 Puerto Rico was battered by two major hurricanes. Hurricane Irma first skirted the islands, a United States territory, on Sept. 6, 2017, leaving 1 million residents without power. Less than two weeks later Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, destroying critical infrastructure, causing widespread flooding and knocking out power across the entire island.

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The storm’s official death toll reached 64 people, but a Harvard study put the number of indirect deaths — those caused by both the storm and its devastating aftermath — at nearly 4,600.

While the human toll of the storm was obvious, Collado Garcia said the ecological cost slipped under the radar.

Now, in “Somos de Aqui,” the photographer and curator is seeking to tell that story by depicting four species native to Puerto Rico: the coqui, the Puerto Rican parrot, the leatherback sea turtle and the greater bulldog bat — bats being the only surviving native mammals on the archipelago. While the coqui is a ubiquitous symbol for Puerto Ricans, the story of the parrot sums up the true extent of Hurricane Maria’s devastating ecological impact.

Before the storm ripped through El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest managed by the United States Forest Service, 56 parrots lived among the forest’s canopy.

Two survived the storm.

That story was repeated elsewhere on the main island. Four of 31 birds living in a western forest survived and only 75 out of 134 parrots in Rio Abajo, a forest in the island’s mountainous interior, made it through the tempest.

Collado Garcia pointed out that, even before Maria, the parrot’s numbers were dwindling because of deforestation and the Forest Service’s “inability to prioritize agricultural resources over tourism.” Now, pre-existing conservation problems are being compounded by a lack of funding from the territory’s ongoing debt crisis and its continued efforts to rebuild in the storm’s aftermath.

The majority of the island’s resources are being “used for the main things that people need in order to survive and thrive in Puerto Rico,” Collado Garcia said.

Spending on water, health care and security leaves very little “support for the biologists who are fighting to protect these species.”

As Puerto Rico works to rebuild its economy and its ecological systems, Collado Garcia hopes “Somos de Aqui” will give Jackson’s conservation-minded residents a window into the state of things on the island.

She also hopes the exhibit will give Spanish speakers an opportunitiy to learn in their native tongue.

Collado Garcia prepared all of the materials for the exhibit in Spanish, translating plaques into and subtitling the films in English. Doing so was an homage of sorts to the exhibit’s contributing photographers and biologists, all of whom are Puerto Rican.

For Collado Garcia it’s also personal.

When she moved to Teton County in 2013 Collado Garcia was one of two Puerto Ricans she knew of here. In the aftermath of Maria those numbers have swelled. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College estimated that in the past year and half up to 230 residents of the U.S. territory have relocated to Teton County. Presenting “Somos de Aqui” in Spanish was intended to reach out to that community, as well as the rest of the local Latino population.

“We’re making a point of showing that, yes, you can learn about this place in your own language,” Collado Garcia said.

“That creates an opportunity for our community to feel supported.”

For Lisa Simmons, a co-curator of “Somos de Aqui” and the museum’s associate curator of education and outreach, that’s in line with the museum’s mission to become an inclusive space for all of Teton County’s residents.

She also saw “Somos de Aqui” as an opportunity to the tell the story of wildlife, whether from the high plains or from an island that, despite being part of the United States, is thousands of miles away.

“The museum is dedicated to telling the story of wildlife,” she said. “Not just large ungulates from Jackson, but even the smallest frog on an island far away.” 

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